Diz Russell, center. Photo courtesy the band.
Diz Russell, center. Photo courtesy the band.

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

In the 1950s, Nashville-born, Cleveland-raised Albert “Diz” Russell put himself on the rhythm and blues map as a low-voiced baritone singer in two pioneering doo-wop groups: The Regals and The Orioles. On November 16, Russell died in a Cheverly hospital from congestive heart failure. He was 83.

In The Orioles, Russell provided backing vocals for Baltimore R&B singer Sonny Til, who was known for romantic ballads including “Cryin’ in the Chapel” and “It’s Too Soon to Know.” After leaving The Orioles in 1960 and settling locally with his wife, D.C.-raised Mildred Russell, this singer soon began working various day jobs and later opened his own optical stores, record stores, and book stores on Good Hope Road SE and elsewhere in the D.C. area. Russell returned to singing in 1979 again with The Orioles, led by longtime warbler Sonny Til. After Til’s death in 1981, Russell took over the group’s leadership through this year, re-named as The Legendary Orioles, and kept the group’s street-corner harmony sound alive.

Singer Larry Jordan who joined The Legendary Orioles in the early 1990s says Russell “had a great concept of harmony, he was very good at putting vocal parts together,” a skill Russell developed early on. Shortly after arriving in New York in 1954, The Regals won Amateur Night at The Apollo and recorded several singles. After that, Til decided to have Russell and The Regals join him in The Orioles to give the group a more modern blending of voices, which they used to create newer arrangements of older Orioles songs.

But Russell, who had begun to lose his vision due to cataracts and glaucoma in more recent decades, always had an adept ear and picked wonderful singers for the oft-changing lineup of The Legendary Orioles. D.C. soul singer Skip Mahoney, whose solo records are valued by collectors, was a member of the group in the ’90s, as was Reese Palmer, who had sung with Marvin Gaye in high school. “What gave The Orioles longevity is that Diz would bring in younger singers from another generation and he would let them bring in their style,” Mahoney says. “That would help The Orioles become more contemporary and reach other audiences.”

The Legendary Orioles recorded only a few albums, but stayed busy performing live: at oldies shows up and down the East Coast, a Bill Clinton inaugural event, July 4th gigs at The Sylvan Theatre, and various local clubs. Mildred Russell, better known as Millie, worked hard as the ensemble’s manager, keeping them in the spotlight while her husband imparted his lifetime of experience as a musician and store owner to fellow band members and others alike. Singer/guitarist Eddie Jones, who was in the band from about1981 to 2007 says “he taught me an awful lot. I learned even more than before when I was a sideman with Peaches & Herb, Bobby Womack, and The Spinners. We did a lecture at Eastern High School. When it came to the business he was very knowledgeable.”

Diz and Millie together often served as the creative center for D.C.’s old-school R&B scene. “There was never a time when you would drop by their home and there weren’t two or three entertainers there, Jones says. “Diz kept performing to the very end,” Mahoney notes. “He was very inspirational. He was a complete, well-rounded man. He was an entrepreneur. He was a businessman. He was a performer. He lived a complete life. He and Mildred were a team. They were really like a finishing school for local entertainers and musicians.”

A funeral service for Albert “Diz” Russell will be held today, Nov. 29th, from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. at J.B. Jenkins Funeral Home, 7474 Landover Road, Hyattsville.